Poor Aristotle, he thought that animals could not be happy! Of course, he never spent any time playing catch with a dolphin or watching a chimp release a heartfelt ‘belly laugh.’ And his thinking was hardly unique, as most biologists didn’t think that animals could experience joy well into the 21st century. This changed, in part, because of the seminal contributions by Dr. Jaak Panksepp, whose experiments identified seven distinct networks of emotion, including play.
Dr. Panksepp demonstrated animal joy by means of a deceptively simple experiment— he tickled his rats. As he rubbed his fingers on their belly, they rolled on their backs and let out a high pitched screech. There was no other interpretation but the most obvious: they were laughing.
Of course, this begs the question: which are the 15 happiest animals? Each of the following animals was selected because they met the following criteria:
- They are known for spirited play
- We have evidence of joyful communication
- They have a powerful ‘kinship’ bond
Rats are very social animals, who relish energetic play. Some of their favorite sports include ‘tug of war’ with each other and wrestling. Rats have very strong familial relationships and the mother will spend a great deal of time carefully preparing her nest. Once their young are born, they dote happily on their pups and attend to their needs.
Otter is another animal that, when tame, love to be tickled and laugh. Newborn otters living in a den are cared for not just by their mother, but by their father and other siblings. Not only is their play dynamic, it is almost thrill-seeking. Otters like to build slippery slides out of natural materials so that they can coast quickly into the water.
Dolphins live in a pod and have strong, caring social attachments. Early in life, they acquire a signature ‘whistle’ which serves as their name and they will respond to it throughout their life. Some of their happiest moments seem to be rising to the surface, leaping in the air and spinning. The most athletic dolphins have been observed to spin as many as seven times before splashing back down into the ocean.
Orca whales also appear to be happy animals, when traveling in the company of other members of their pod. Researchers note that when two different pods meet, they have a special ritual of greeting each other with what some researchers have called a ‘caress.’ Even in the wild, orcas have been observed to play and splash for no other reason than, it appears, to have fun.
Although wolves have been popularized in everyday speech as ‘lone wolves,’ the truth is just the opposite. They have strong social bonds and deep attachments to their family. Wolves have been observed play-wrestling and play chase with each other, much like dogs. When they find a missing member of the pack, they express joy by ‘nibbling’ and licking the other wolf’s face.
Photo Credit: Paul Ponganis/Antarctic Photo Library
Few visitors to an aquarium will be surprised to see that penguins made this list. They love to play and spend much of the day calling to each other in high pitched sequences. When they move through the snow, they glide joyously on their stomach which is called, understandably, tobogganing.
According to researchers, lions are the only truly social cat species. A pride of lions can range from 3 to a group of 20 or more. Lion cubs spend much of their early life, learning about play from each other and the tolerant elders in their group. They jump, explore and are high-spirited adventurers.
Meerkats live in clans of twenty or more and can be altruistic and loving. Best of all, they love to run and play and even participate in competitive foot races.
Elephants live in deeply committed family groups and have strong attachments. In the wild, they are not only playful; they are also silly and even comedic. According to elephant observer Joyce Poole, they will often call out, trying to get attention for their foolishness.
Lemurs can be highly active, social animals. Some of their most exciting and playful moments are when they move from tree to tree in what is called ‘ricochetal leaping’. Play is a behavior that starts early for lemurs, at about 6 weeks old. They bite, chase, and jump on each other – all in high-spirited fun.
Pigs are so highly intelligent and playful animals and are increasingly being chosen as pets. But, even in farmyard pens, pigs will select toys that squeak and bounce, so that they can play with each other. One creative farmer in Holland actually built his pigs a slide, which they use with great delight!
All monkeys, it seems, love to express pleasure by swinging and leaping through the trees. But, they are also known tricksters who love to create practical jokes. So interested are researchers in their sense of joy, that not only have they observed them laughing, they have actually measured it—it’s four times as long as a normal exhalation!
Anyone who has observed a gorilla in a zoo probably is thinking that they are not happy or content. But according to researchers, just the opposite is true. Not only have they been observed playing with each other, they also enjoy teasing and a few well considered pranks. In captivity, they regularly use toys (even dolls) to engage in imaginative play!
What could make one happier than a 20 hour cat nap? Cats, it seems, know how to spend their time amusingly. When they are young, most of what they need to learn about hunting comes from play. Domesticated cats love to chase string and lay in warmth. Purr happiness!
No list of happy animals could be complete without man’s best friend. Dogs form significant and abiding attachments not only to their own family groups, but also to their owner. They love play, play fighting and very definitely, teasing. And best of all, not only can you tell if your dog is happy, your dog can tell if you are happy. As it turns out, their brains are keyed into human vocal sounds and they are able to untangle our emotional states. When you come home and reach down to pat your dog, you can be assured that they are as happy to see you as you are to see them!
Although this is a list of 15 animals, it’s important to know that all animals have the hormone oxytocin. This means that they have the same ‘love hormone’ that is found in humans. And if you happen to see an animal smile or laugh, chances are something biochemical is making them happy.